Claire Cottrell

On a rare, drizzly LA morning, we find ourselves in Claire Cottrell’s kitchen eating wildflower honey on toast and talking about “what’s next,” both in the immediate and the abstract. Claire works professionally as a film director and a photographer while also operating BOOK STAND, an online art book shop that’s equal parts curation and conversation. Her edit of titles balances the softly avant garde, the feminine, and the unexpected (think: an out of print title considering the “sensuality of absence”; a series on Mexico City plantlife; an illustrated Japanese booklet on udon noodles). It’s a mix that gives us a glimpse into how she sees the world, guided by a specific blend of reference points and intuition, graceful self-awareness and independence. In our morning with her, we discussed how these perspectives manifest with a conversation about digital fatigue, personal breakthroughs in the Mojave Desert, and finding a sense of place.

Claire wears BOATNECK TEE in white and BAJA TIE WAIST CULOTTE in azalea
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” …what is the story you are currently telling about yourself?
I’m at a crossroads in my life. I’m either going to stay on the path, or bushwhack a trail to the ocean. I’m choosing to bushwhack the trail to the ocean. 

You’ve lived in Los Angeles for almost 15 years. Can you share a bit about how your perspective on the city has evolved over time — how has remaining in the same place changed you? 
You live in a place long enough and your identity becomes entwined with it. I can’t explain myself without talking about Los Angeles. Someone told me that it takes nine years to understand this city and I think that’s true. I fell in love the minute I landed, but after ten years it becomes who you are. The light defines my work. So do the colors: It’s the food I eat. The clothes I wear. It’s all Meyer lemons, avocado honey, and cream linen. No joke. I go somewhere else and feel out of place. You can’t wear a sun hat and sandals in New York City and be taken seriously.  After almost 15 years it becomes a mantra. Los Angeles is a philosophy for living. I learn it by driving through the old residential neighborhoods — Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Whitley Heights, Pasadena. I look in to the courtyards and the open windows. I see the swimming pools, the blankets of jasmine, the lemon trees, the archways, the wind chimes, the Spanish tile. There’s a romance here, but you have to find it. 
The photographer Todd Hido talks about the connection between nostalgia and his work’s purpose: “Since I left home after high school, I’ve always been trying to find it again in some way.” That’s how I feel about California. I was born here, but we left when I was five. I’ve spent most of my life trying to find it again. Through the decisions I make and recently, through my work. Staying in the same place has allowed me to find home.
A very modern “problem” is figuring out how to best portray yourself and your work online, especially when you rely on a digital presence to get hired. Can you talk a bit about your thoughts on the following themes: the blurring between personal taste and professional presentation; the expectations of keeping up with social media status quo; privacy; digital fatigue.
I get most of my work through traditional (advertising) industry channels. I have representation and my work comes from that. But, the reality of today is that we’re all our own ambassadors. If you’re a creative individual, it’s in your best interest to develop a strong personal brand. Or that’s what they tell you…I don’t like that idea. I’m confusing, complex, and obscure. My interests change all the time. I think the idea of having a successful personal brand is at odds with who I am. I also believe that your work doesn’t have to define you. It’s a really interesting idea in the context of our modern media landscape. 
A great article by Miya Tokumitsu talks about a related ideal — the DWYL phenomenon :  “There’s little doubt that “Do What You Love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit?” I think that’s a good question. I love what I do, but it’s not what I love. I’ve become semi-known — via BOOK STAND — for what I love. There’s a disconnect because it’s not what I do. Meaning, it’s not how I make a living. I get approached by people saying: I want to work with you, let’s make a book together, and I have to break it to them that I don’t make books. I direct commercials. And I take photos. It’s confusing. That being said, I’m finding that thanks to social media, what I do and what I love are overlapping more and more…so the very short answer to this question is, I’ll get back to you. In my camp, it’s all very much a work in progress.
On digital fatigue: I am so feeling it. I keep wondering, what’s next? Can someone figure that out already ? 
"But why should our pleasure be for profit?” I think that’s a good question. I love what I do, but it’s not what I love. I’ve become semi-known — via BOOK STAND — for what I love. There’s a disconnect because it’s not what I do. Meaning, it’s not how I make a living."

What is the best $100 you’ve spent?
(My dog) Truffle’s adoption fee.
What has been a non-obvious turning point for you?
A recent one. I took a road trip to Arizona last month to clear my head. I stayed at Arcosanti for a few days to take photos and wander around the high desert. I thought my time at an experimental utopia would be revelatory, but it wasn’t. The non-obvious turning point came a few days later: I was staying in a small casita in the wine country near Sedona. I saw a middle-aged cowboy on his cell phone walking his alpaca on a leash at dusk. It stopped me in my tracks. I was barefoot in the grass and holding a plate of compost. In the car the next day, half way across the Mojave Desert, I thought, oh my god, that cowboy and that casita have figured something out. It was my Don Draper moment; I needed to get out of the conference room.  
You started an online store dedicated to beautiful books — can you share more about how BOOK STAND began and how it has evolved? What has it taught you about tangibility?
For years I did visual research for film and television. It was pre-the-Internet-as-we-know-it and I spent a lot of time in book shops and looking at early DIY portfolio sites. I noticed that a lot of artists — specifically photographers — were making their own books. Not zines, but really interesting, provocative books. I was discovering so much and in the process I was introducing Hollywood and advertising to relevant young photographers. I loved the thought of selling ideas, and BOOK STAND grew out of that. 
The early days of BOOK STAND happened to coincide with the first LA Art Book Fair. I lucked out and got a last minute spot between Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom table and Leanne Shapton and Jason Fulford’s J&L Books table. I was blown away. About a year in I realized that a project selling stuff online is e-commerce. I wasn’t interested in that. I’d done a few events with friends, like a book fair in the woods, a few installations, and a week in Berlin that culminated with a reading, a viola player, and a big dinner that I cooked with my friend Marleen. Connection and storytelling is what I’m most interested in and that’s what BOOK STAND is now. I still sell books, but it’s really about supporting and connecting with artists whom I love and who are forging their own path.

Claire wears BOATNECK TEE in white and TAIYANA WABI-WIDE LEG PANT in cream
Please suggest four favorite books: 
One to judge by its cover. Yoshihiko Ueda, Works 1985 - 1993 
One purely based on content (looks aside). Paris Collection Individuals 1998 - 1999 by Nakako Hayashi
One that has “changed your life.” Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee   
One low-brow favorite. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle  
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Don’t wait for it to come to you. 
Something that is overrated.
An online presence.
Something that is underrated.
An online presence.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
Make your own work.


Photography by YE RIN MOK | Moving image by CLAIRE COTTRELL | Interview by LEIGH PATTERSON